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My Mind Is Racing With Anxiety, but on the Outside I Look Fine

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“But you look fine.”

It’s the response I hear every time I tell someone about my battle with anxiety. They always say I look fine, and I probably do. I’ve had lots of practice making sure my outside appearance doesn’t reflect the turmoil going on inside, making sure I appear as put together as I can.

I’ve gotten really good at faking a smile and feigning interest in what people are saying when all I want is quiet. I am a master at pulling myself out of bed when it seems pointless and at making myself eat and sleep so my body is in better shape than my mind. I do it all because I want to make it look like I am in control.

So, yes, I look fine, but only because I am trying to. I’m such a perfectionist I can’t let anyone see me crack. I can’t let anyone see I actually have flaws. I look fine because not looking fine would bring on the onslaught of pity, judgment and questions I just can’t deal with.

I look fine because I want to.

Yet, I’m not. I am not fine. Inside, I am begging my brain to just slow down, forcing myself to not cry, to stay strong and to keep it together. Inside, I am doubting everything I say, questioning everyone who speaks to me and quivering under the weight of everyone’s expectations. I am crumbling on the inside.

If I let the world see the way I felt every day, then no one would know what to do with me. If all of a sudden the perky, smiling, straight-A student was replaced by the crying, fractured person I feel like on the inside, then no one would understand. They would try to fix me, and I don’t want that. I don’t need fixing, not really.

So I make sure I look that way to everybody else. On the inside, my chest is aching, and my mind is spinning as I struggle to keep hold of my own mind. Yet, on the outside, I look fine.

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4 Key Lessons I Learned When I Relinquished 'Control' of My Anxiety

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I’d had panic attacks before, but not like this.

Around January 2014, panic attacks started waking me up on a daily basis. My heart would race, thoughts would flood by mind, and I would feel completely out of control of my body.

So, like any person with control issues, I white-knuckled my way through it.

I felt more and more “off” as the days went on. It was common I would wake up with one of my arms numb from losing circulation. I became more anxious and went to the worse-case scenario, or what my wife and I call, “the WCS.” I was convinced I had a clogged artery or something. I was going to die.

This did not help.

Finally, my wife asked, “Why don’t you go see a doctor?”

Why? Because I can control this! I can “beat this!” Seeing a doctor seemed like giving up. Today, I’m grateful I can laugh at my state of denial. What control?

Growing tired of these constant feelings of pins and needles, I soon found out that to “beat this” involved relinquishing control. If, as for me, your anxiety arises when you feel the need to control your seemingly out-of-control surroundings, the paradox to trust is this: To gain control of your anxiety, you must give up control of it. This relinquishing of control is not at all a sign a weakness. No, it is wise to trust this paradox of our anxiety.

So, I did: I went to a doctor.

There, and the subsequent weeks that followed, I learned four key lessons that began to redeem this anxious period of my life:

1. Medication that used to work can stop working. One thing you must know about me is I inherited high blood-pressure from my grandfather. Into my senior year of college, I started taking daily medication to help gain control of it (which has its own story of relinquishing control). What I found out when I went to this doctor is that some medication stops working. This doctor also has high blood-pressure and said my medication is from the ’70s. This new one will help in my symptoms. He explained some medication just stops working. It just does.

2. Additional medication is not a sign of weakness but helpful in finding your “new normal.” The panic attacks didn’t stop. I saw my family physician and he said the earlier medication was better at curbing anxiety than this new medication. He prescribed me a low anxiety medication that helps me relax before bed. He said, “We’re just finding your new normal.”

3. Sometimes it’s more than just the medication. Another thing my family physician mentioned was that personal issues also play into anxiety. I let him know I had started going to professional counseling just three months prior. It isn’t too surprising now to look back and see all the reasons why my panic attacks started. I was addressing my mental health in ways I had never done before. It was scary and anxiety-inducing. Of course: counseling is a form of giving up control to gain control. I hadn’t gained it yet. I felt out-of-control.

4. Listen to your body: it acts on a subconscious level in accordance with your mind. As I continued down this course of adjusting medication, addressing deep-seated issues through counseling, and inviting safe people into my life to join me in my journey, I started to regain some manageability. The biggest thing is that I have to be honest about my anxiety. Numbing out to my anxiety is to avoid reality. I don’t know how panic attacks work for others because mine are the only ones I can truly draw on from personal experience. For me, panic attacks are warning signs that I’m not completely in-tune to my anxiety and something is not being honestly addressed (a feeling, fear, addiction, etc.). My body and mind want to be in balance, and panic attacks are warning signs that something is out of whack and not being addressed. I need to be on a constant mission of mindfulness and self-discovery.

The blessings of any hard season in your life come from the lessons learned and assign meaning by allowing that season to answer two questions: “Why?” and “Now what?”

For me, Why? Those are outlined above: I had to learn those four lessons. I couldn’t have learned them without giving up control.

So… now what? Counseling and other self-discoveries have pushed me to mine several gold nuggets of wisdom I can’t keep to myself. My “Now what?” took the tangible form of a podcast called, “Your Motivational High 5,” with the tagline: “5-Minute Motivation for Self-Examination.“ At the point of this article, it has been live for 10 months with 150,000 downloads. I’m so grateful the things I am learning are resonating so meaningfully with others all around the world. Maybe the biggest lesson I’m learning is a lesson from my listeners and one I will forever be learning over and over again.

I am not alone.

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The Facebook Post on Anxiety I Wish I'd Put Up Before I Graduated High School

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Recently I graduated high school, which was a huge achievement for me. After being bullied throughout primary school and into the first few years of high school for issues such as my sensitivity, weight, and extreme shyness (which I later learned was tied to my anxiety), finishing high school was a huge goal of mine, one I successfully completed.

I learned of my anxiety during the summer holidays between year 10 and year 11, and everything finally made sense, the missing puzzle piece. I told my closest friends, my best friend of 13 years and my close school group. I also told my parents. I kept it hidden from everyone else. It felt like a secret. I felt ashamed. I thought my anxiety made me weak when in fact it made me strong. It felt like a weight on my shoulders always dragging me down.

Halfway through year 12 I realized my mistake: I had let anxiety, my deepest darkest secret of the time, consume me. So I spoke up. I told more people. I applied for special provisions for the Higher School Certificate (Australian end-of-school exam exams which determine whether or not we get into university), as exam conditions make me extremely anxious. At first I was rejected because none of my teachers knew of my condition; my mistake was made more evident. Eventually I was accepted after speaking to each of my teachers and explaining my situation. I drafted a post which I intended to post on my Facebook account for all my peers to see. I never did post it because I was too scared. It went like this:

Anxiety (noun): a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.

I have something I have been wanting to share with you all for a very long while… I have anxiety, and just like my hair, my nose, and my eyes are all part of who I am, my anxiety is part of me too, but it’s also important to realize that I am not my anxiety!

Some may think this is a post to draw attention to myself when in fact it is not. I would much rather not talk about this… but the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to change! I am not my condition! My anxiety does not define me! Yes, sometimes it controls me, but it does not define me!

I just want people to know that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of! Yes, mental illnesses are ugly. Yes, mental illnesses have a detrimental effect on the lives of individuals, but in no way, shape, or form should one be ashamed by this or judged by this!

We need to speak up! We need to help each other!

Be patient with those who have anxiety (and other mental illnesses). It’s hard to talk about and explain to someone else whats going on in your head when even you yourself don’t know.

I wish I had posted this before I finished high school. No more hiding. No more running from myself. I’ve learned to accept the anxiety and I wish I knew it was possible to do so when I was first diagnosed.

Anxiety does not make you weak. It makes you stronger.

Anxiety has made me who I am. It has shaped me.

Anxiety is not something to be ashamed of.

I am now moving on with the next phase of my life. I do not wish to announce to the world that I have anxiety, but I will not hide it. It will not become a secret that I bury deep within myself only to manifest over time.

I read this quote when I was little: “those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.” Don’t let your insecurity regarding anxiety (or any other mental illness for that matter) stop you because it is a part of you and you should not be ashamed of it. This is what I wish I had told my high school self.

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Deciding to Go On and Off My Anti-Anxiety Medication in College

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When I was finally diagnosed with anxiety I decided to read as much as I possibly could. I didn’t know why this was considered a diagnosis because didn’t everyone get anxious? I knew I would begin to hyperventilate when I could no longer control my anxiety, but I thought it was something I could learn to control. People can learn to help control their anxiety attacks, but it takes practice. I didn’t understand how much practice, and I quickly realized that instead of getting better I was actually getting worse.

Because I thought my anxiety stemmed from being around my parents, I assumed once I went off to college I could get a better handle on my issues. I couldn’t. I was put on an anxiety medication that was supposed to control my depression as well, and after the first two weeks I noticed a major difference in my life. I no longer had my daily anxiety attacks and my depressive episodes were minimized.

Two months into my first semester as a college student, I had passed all of the tests I had taken with very few anxiety attacks. I felt much better. My daily life had improved significantly. Because everything was going so well I thought I could slow down the medication. I thought I could slowly wean myself off the pills because I hated taking something every day and feeling controlled by a medication. I didn’t want to be a “weird” person who spent her entire life on medication for some “weird” mental disorder.

I had been on several dates, and since the pills were always in my purse, after the third or fourth date, the guy would see them, get concerned and eventually leave. I assumed no guy would ever like the girl who needed anxiety meds. So I stopped taking the pills. Cold turkey. I had read online that most people did not experience withdrawals from the medication I was on, so I wasn’t even looking for symptoms. But I soon noticed the depression return. I began feeling constantly anxious. I would shake just because I had to walk through a crowd of people.

Going to class was awful. I couldn’t stand the thought of being stuck in a room with 200 other people who were all staring at me. The worst part of it all is that logically I knew no one looked at me and no one even knew who I was, but that didn’t stop the feelings. That is the issue with anxiety. It isn’t logical.

The nightmares began,and then I gave up. I couldn’t handle the distress. I started taking the pills again. Going back on them was awful. I had forgotten how in the beginning I had no appetite — that I didn’t care about life and that my depression had actually been worse before it was better. I couldn’t do anything about it at this point. I had to struggle through it one way or the other. I chose to go back on the pills. Maybe I could just hide them better, I thought.

A month later, more failed dates occurred after revealing I was on medication. In reality, I can look back and realize those men obviously were not right for me if they couldn’t support me in some of the darkest situations of my life. But at the moment I was angry. I threw out the rest of my bottle so I couldn’t go back to the pills. This time I would have to quit, I thought. I could do it. I was strong. I couldn’t. The anxiety and depression was too much for me to handle.

Bottom line: I need my medication. That is just a part of my life right now, and maybe some point down the line, I won’t need it, but for now I do. That is normal, and if you’re struggling with quitting, you should never do it alone. Do it with the help of your doctor and your therapist. Make the decision for you, but don’t follow through by yourself; it won’t work. Medication may be the route of several hardships because of your day-to-day life, but it also significantly helps others. Weigh your options, and decide what is best. Right now, I know I’ll get through it… with the help of my meds.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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Thinkstock photo by Design Pics

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To the Paramedic Who Called Me 'Crazy'

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I get it. I needed help for my anxiety because I was so distraught I became a danger towards myself. I was a mess, but I was not “crazy.”

I lay there in blue scrubs in a hospital bed waiting for the emergency medical services (EMS) team to come pick me up and bring me to my next location. I was a nervous wreck, and I had no idea what was going to happen to me, nor how long I was going to be away from my home and my loved ones. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and my thoughts were attacking me. I felt like I couldn’t survive this.

I heard my night nurse say, “Vanessa, get up. Your ride is here.”

I looked at her and then looked at the two EMS girls. I slowly got out of my bed and walked over to them. They helped me get on the stretcher, and then they strapped me down. I was rolled out of the ER and into the lobby where other patients were staring at me, and all I could feel was myself slowly dying inside.

To the EMS girl who sat with me in the back of the ambulance for 30 minutes — I was not “crazy” like you called me. I was quietly sitting there looking out the small window in the claustrophobic, hot ambulance, and I remember you turned to me and said, “I need you to sign this.”

I was confused about what I was signing, so I said, “What am I signing for?” I sat there, strapped down and scared out of my mind, and you had the nerve to say, “Don’t worry, the worst part is already over. You’re crazy, and you’re going to a mental institution.”

I was already feeling depressed, and you made it even worse. You made me feel so low about myself, and you were supposed to make me feel better. How are those words supposed to make me feel better? There was nothing comforting about that. I learned throughout my life that words are sharper than actions. A bruise can heal, but words can never be forgotten. I will never forget what you said to me that rainy afternoon when I thought my world was falling apart. I will never forget how you made me feel in that moment, and how I wanted to be gone from this world. I will also never understand how anyone, especially a paramedic, can say something like that to a person. You made me feel smaller than I already felt.

What you don’t know is that I’ve gotten better mentally since I’ve been out. I’ve been making good choices and taking care of myself. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget what happened to me when I was hospitalized, but one thing I know for sure is I’m a lot stronger now, and I will not let people make me feel terrible about my mental illness. I struggle with mental illness, and I’m learning how to cope with it one day at a time.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Helping My Daughter With Anxiety by Addressing Its Physical Effects

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My daughter is 11 and has a diagnosis of autism. Anxiety is an everyday challenge for my daughter and has been for as long as I can remember. Her heart beats double time, she panics, and this can lead to a meltdown.

When my daughter was around 9 years old, I purchased a cognitive behavioral book for children to see if I could help support her in understanding her worry. I bought it hoping, with some understanding, her worry would reduce. But at the time, my daughter just was not ready for that level of understanding. She found it difficult to grasp, and it didn’t have any impact in helping her with her anxiety beyond being able to identify what anxiety feels like within her body.

This made me realize understanding cognitive processes is difficult for everyone, and there must be a more practical way of relieving anxiety than looking solely at the thought patterns behind it. The more I read and researched anxiety, the more it dawned on me that the body has a distinctive physiological reaction when in fear. We all have a fight-or-flight response, and although not everyone will have the same reaction to the same thing, we tend to have similar physiological reactions when we experience anxiety.

Anxiety releases adrenaline, which makes our hearts beat faster, and in turn our breathing may increase. We may get a tingling sensation in our arms and legs. We may get a headache or a stomachache, and we may feel hot with our palms becoming sweaty. Having a written list of what anxiety feels like has helped us put strategies in place to address the physical symptoms as they arise.

We started with breathing — simple breathing exercises have helped us greatly, and I say us because everyone in our house uses them. It is a fast and simple way to start the calming process. We also started practicing a muscle relaxation meditation that contracts and then releases the muscles in turn to help them relax. Lastly we realized the need for space! A timeout from whatever we are doing can be so important for everyone, especially my daughter. Sometimes social situations and certain busy environments become too much for her. Simply having a five- to 10-minute timeout in a different room can make all the difference.

We choose to practice these strategies when my daughter is anxious as well as when she is not anxious so she can try to stop the anxiety from building up. I do think having an understanding of the cognitive side of anxiety does help and hope to visit that side with my daughter as she grows into her teens. But for now, using strategies to combat the physical elements of anxiety works for us.

Learning more about anxiety and how it presents physically in our bodies has helped everyone in my house greatly. It can be a scary time for anyone to have an anxiety attack, so having practical solutions to some of the symptoms helps take some of that fright away. My daughter may always have anxiety, but as her mother, I will try my best to help her manage it so it doesn’t hinder her achieving, and she feels confident enough that if she is feeling anxious, she will know what to do to reduce it.

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